In any case, yes, we could all swim, so we followed him down the road to a little beach made entirely of small, round cobbles at the back of a cove defined by two arms of steep, dark stone. A freshwater stream flowed into the beach and disappeared into the rocks. Here and there I could look down between the cobbles and see the water still flowing. Yesterday was the warmest day we’ve had yet and the stones felt hot on my hands. Black spiders, big and flat as twisted-up bobby-pins skittered out of the way among the stones as I looked. Allen didn’t leave us a lot of time to explore, though, but stripped to the waist and led us out along the rock arm, barefoot, above the cold water.
“Dive shallow,” he told us, “there are rocks maybe six feet down,” and he leaped. There was no way to get into the water without leaping; the short drop looked too slippery and sleep to edge down slowly, so I leaped too, right after him, and the water was horribly, almost frightening cold. The kind of cold where you suddenly can’t think, you’re just pure awareness, an instant, unwelcome meditation. You can only scream or laugh in water that cold, and so I laughed. Allen surfaced next to me, whooping and grinning. His black hair clung to his scalp and made the thin patch on top show up clear and pink. He was wearing a pair of green swim goggles. When had he put them on? People were leaping into the water all around us, whooping or shrieking in turn.
“That’s some therapy right there,” Allen told me, treading water merrily.
"Oh?" I think my teeth were chattering already, "what does cold water cure?"
"Grumps, moods, blues, and sticks-up-the-ass," he replied. Once everyone was in the water, he told us to play as long as we liked without getting too cold, and that there were towels on the beach.
And that was it. There was no formal teaching, just play. For the next four or five hours we all simply reverted to childhood. Women in their thirties pretended to be mermaids and dolphins, men raced each other down the beach with towels tied, cape-style, around their necks, and one man painted his face with mud and declaimed heroic poetry to nobody in particular from the top of a small, round rock. Even Allen became a boy again. He stayed in the water longer than any of us, his black and pink head surfacing and diving again and again like a seal. When he finally came out, his lips were blue and his hands and pockets were full of shells and pretty rocks. He spoke to none of us but sat on a foam pad sorting out his treasures into piles by size and color, and I could see in him the small boy he must have been: intelligent, solitary, and lonely without knowing it. When he was done sorting, he picked up all his stones and sea-shells and threw them all back in the water again, one by one. As for me I watched people. That’s what I did when I was little, and that’s what I do now.
Where did the foam pad come from? Allen brought it. He had one for everyone, because the cobbles of the beach were really too large to sit on comfortably. He had this big, old-fashioned trunk and he pulled the most extraordinary collection of things out of it. The foam pads, for starters, but then there was a small grill, a large aluminum pot, a bag of charcoal, a dozen live lobsters, bags of mussels, various fruits and vegetables for grilling, jugs of water, bottles of hard cider and local beer, wooden plates, a small tarp, two Tiki torches, sleeping bags for all of us, a small card table...I think he did it by using an abnormally large trunk and hiding it partway in a hole in the ground, but the ground was made of pebbles, so it must have taken forever to dig. The Tiki torches alone were longer than the part of the trunk we could see was, and looked rather comical coming out. So we had a feast, and while we feasted, Allen entertained us.
Now, obviously the masters are all masters at something, otherwise they wouldn't be here, but we hardly ever get to see them go all-out. They’re usually focused on whatever it is we’re learning. So I’d seen Allen do slight-of-hand tricks before, he does them almost constantly, to illustrate a point, crack a joke, or even just for the sake of surprise, but until yesterday I'd never seen him do a whole show.
He was fantastic.
He had changed into his performance clothes, a tuxedo with a top hat, though nobody knows how or where he changed. He did card tricks, made handkerchiefs change color and then disappear, made small objects levitate, juggled objects whose number and type varied as we watched although none of us could catch him dropping anything or picking anything up, and the whole time kept up this marvelous chatter that made us laugh so hard we about puked. Nothing he did seemed that complicated, though I can’t figure out how he did any of it, but it was the chatter, the schtick, the showmanship, that made it amazing. The only time he actually stopped talking was a brief period during which he was juggling knives—I guess he’s not quite a master juggler, because it seemed to require more of his attention than the magic had. Then he traded the knives for what looked like Ping Pong balls, until he tossed them, one by one, way high in the air, and one by one each one hatched out into tiny yellow helicopters and flew away.
He stopped for a while to eat and drink with us, and then helped us clean up. We found all the wind-up helicopters and returned them to him. The tide was coming in again, having pulled out way far down the beach, exposing progressively larger stones that I guess are too heavy for the water to move up as far. When it was out, I could see the rocks Allen had warned us about lying exposed except for their piles of limp seaweed; all the little treasures he had so carefully dived for had come from the intertidal zone and he had returned them there. I would have searched the sea weeds and crevices for my own collection, but it seemed like a violation, somehow, to admit that all that diving had been unnecessary.
We played some more, and Allen made soup from the salty lobster broth, the leftovers from lunch, and various kinds of sea weed he’d pulled off the rocks. He is a phenomenal cook. Then someone talked him into performing again. As it got dark, he snapped his fingers and pointed at the torches, which both lit themselves. He pulled marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, even skewers, out of his hat and passed them around; the grill was still going, cooling down, but perfect for s’mores. The stars were clear above us and we could see the lights of boats out near the horizon. Someone pointed out that camping isn't allowed on the beach, but Allen grinned, his face looking weird in the torchlight, and he told us we didn't have to worry about getting caught when camping with a magician.
After the last applause had faded, Allen pulled a guitar out of his magic trunk and asked if anyone knew how to play. Of course we guessed that he could and persuaded him to give us a song, though I suppose he must have been exhausted. It turns out that playing a guitar might be the one thing Allen is not particularly good at doing. It’s good to know he’s human, and both his playing and his voice are more than serviceable for sitting around a campfire. He spent a few minutes struggling to get the guitar back into tune, and then chose a song so ridiculously perfect he might have written it for the occasion, except, of course, that the Grateful Dead had already written it years ago (and, as far as I know, Allen is not much of a writer).
Well, the first days are the hardest days
Don’t you worry anymore,
Cause when life looks like Easy Street
There is danger at your door.
Think this through with me.
Let me know your mind.
All, all I want to know
Is are you kind?
I mean, what else is a therapist going to sing? But after that he surrendered the guitar to J.B. and one of the several women named Raven, both of whom can actually play well. I got another bowl of soup and found Allen, still wearing his top-hat and looking incongruous and happy, squatting on a large rock and drinking a beer.
“Why did you decide to do this?” I asked him, not complaining, of course, just curious. “The others all taught us something on their days with us.” I could kick myself sometimes, for the stuff that comes out of my mouth. Allen just gave me a rather amused look and waited. “I mean,” I amended, “why did you did you decide to teach us this? Why spend all day playing?”
“Because I thought you needed it,” he told me.
A few minutes later, Arthur went back to the campground, announcing that he was “too old to pretend sleeping on rocks is comfortable.” Andy followed him, saying he’d lost his "taste for sleeping just wherever,” but I think most of us stayed, sitting or lying in our sleeping bags, singing and telling stories and gradually getting drunk. I didn’t think the stones were uncomfortable at all. They are round, after all, not sharp.
I remember noticing that the tide was back out again. I remember noticing that Allen had the guitar again, and once again I thought the song he had chosen was perfect. But it was very long, verse after verse, and however much I might have been willing in that moment to follow him anywhere, in the jingle-jangle morning or otherwise, I was sleepy, and my conscious memory ends abruptly in the middle of the song.
I fell asleep last night with the scent of the sea, the sound of the waves rolling the cobbles as the tide moved away, and the voice of my teacher, singing.
[Next post: Friday, May 24: The Dance]